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Damascus shall not become Aleppo

On Moaz al Khatib’s offer for talks

25. February 2013
by Alfred Klein

The ice-breaking offer for direct negotiations with the Assad government by the leader of the “Syrian National Coalition” indicates a significant shift. Important parts of the population including the Sunni elites want to avoid a further (sectarian) escalation. It is deemed a price too high to be paid. They want to save their capital Damascus from the fate suffered by Homs and Aleppo.

For the time being it as been mainly the Tahrir democrats and left around the “National Co-ordination Boy for Democratic Change” (NCB) which systematically warned of the dangerous dialectics unfolding between militarization and sectarianism. From the very beginning they have been calling for a political solution by negotiations and advocating a defensive, de-escalating strategy facing the regime’s repression (option I). Given the rigidity of the ruling apparatus’s reaction the official opposition – “official” because being recognised by the western rulers of the world – could easily sideline and isolate the NCB as “agents of the regime”. This was possible despite their doubtless credentials having spent decades resisting the regime including long-term imprisonment.

The official opposition quickly embarked on the “Libyan line” responding with a military escalation. Despite the unpopularity of foreign intervention along the first months of the revolt, they hoped for and eventually solicited western-led military intervention (option II). Politically they have been helped by the disproportionate military crackdown on the peaceful and civil protest movement producing an organic drive towards armed self-defence. (That does not exclude that there were Jihadi groups operating from the very start but different to the regime’s narrative they were a marginal phenomenon which the governments was poised to inflate in order to justify the armed repression.)

But eventually as a resultant of factional struggles within the US elite the direct western military intervention did not come about. The substantial reason is the overall weakness of the USA acknowledged by the Obama administration after the Iraqi and Afghan experiences resulting in a cautious line.

In Syria the militarization led step by step to a shift within the insurgent movement towards Jihadi forces. They proved to be the most effective combatants who do not fear death thanks to a strong and hermetic ideology. Their operational capabilities and superiority to all other forces also stem from the financial support flowing from the Gulf. At the same time their growth is also due to the fact that they do not bet on a foreign military intervention but take things in their own (Sunni Islamic) hands. Certainly the combat-proven global Jihadi milieu play a role but it would be misleading to explain the insurgency mainly by external factors.

First the civil movement with democratic left imprints got marginalised (option I), then the Libyan line (option II) has been increasingly revealed improbable, then the radically sectarian Jihadist option (III) offered itself – trying to transform the struggle for democratic rights into a civil war against unbelievers and heretics.

Actually the regime has been trying the very same endeavour only from the adverse side – depicting any opposition as ugly Salafi fundamentalist monster. The militarization and the subsequent actual Islamization, or more appropriately put, Jidadization of the armed opposition helped the governmental bloc to stabilise politically. Instead of democracy the stakes seem to have turned into mutual confessional predominance. Thus the regime could keep not only the confessional minorities on their side or managed at least to neutralise them – out of a plausible fear of Sunni Islamism. But they also succeeded to maintain a good deal of the social elites and the liberal middle classes. Although these strata’s confessional affiliation is by majority Sunni they have not been subscribing to confessionalism so far and first of all they do not want to become involved with a de-stabilizing Jihad. Based on the confessional minorities alone Assad could not have been surviving for such a long time even counting on Russian and Iranian support.

A new element has been arising: the growing fear of the US of an un-controlled spread of Jihadism. By picking the Nusra front for their notorious list of terrorist organisation they clearly emitted a warning signal to all players. No regional power is happy with the Jihadis, not even the Gulf states, from where the funds keep flowing, want their all-out victory.

Both on a national as well as on an international level a stalemate has solidified which cannot be resolved militarily in short terms. Therefore decisive countries like Turkey are searching for a way out rectifying their line and cautiously and covertly exploring also a negotiated settlement.

The course of events in Homs and Aleppo shows that also Jihadism is doomed to fail. In the former capital of the revolt, Homs, the regime succeeded to isolate the Jihadis from the population and close in on them. There the sectarian civil war is accomplished including the concomitant confessional separation. The most important parts of the town inhabited by a majority apparently were re-conquered by the governmental forces. A certain stabilisation is reported which could be interpreted as a partial success. In Aleppo the war has been raging for nearly one year. The regime bombards popular quarters by artillery causing indiscriminate killings pushing the population to flee while the Jihadis attempt to reciprocate by sectarian attacks. Out of formerly four millions inhabitants less than three remain and a majority is reported to have been displaced. Public life ceased. The city is raised to the ground. Thanks to the proximity of Turkey military supply for the rebels continue. The war of attrition can be sustained but for a very high cost. The regime only defends strategic points slowly even loosing some of them. But the rebels are totally unable to supply the civil population with basic goods which might even be a deliberate cynical tactics of the regime with disastrous humanitarian impact.

So as the “final battle” over Aleppo drags on without end in sight. So growing sections of the people ask themselves whether they want to condemn Damascus to the same fate.

Hope for a de-escalating compromise

The official opposition used to point to the will of the street – expressed by Al Jazeera & Co – when it came to justify their call for foreign intervention or armament. The same line was followed opposing negotiations. Whoever has been advocating a political solution was branded a traitor.

There have been Islamic dignitaries warning of the sectarian mobilisation and its conflagration into a civil war. They have been preaching dialogue (not necessarily meaning the regime but at least its constituencies). But they did not accede into the political sphere in the full sense. Moaz al Khatib has been considered as one of those moderates Imams. When selected as the leader of the “Coalition” he apparently subscribed to the position of the mainstream. His latest statements in favour of negotiations, however, suggest that he remained true to his reputation.

Khatib issued his offer all of a sudden and without prior consultation with his direct partners within the opposition. For them it must have appeared as a unilateral coup. Actually otherwise he would not have been able to launch his icebreaking advance. That does, however, not imply that he was isolated or his idea was an unelaborated flash in the pan. We read it as the voice of important forces within and outside Syria which so far have remained silent.

There is the interpretation that the Damascene bourgeoisie wants to save itself by a pacifying compromise as they do not believe any more in a swift victory of either side. In this way they hope to avoid total destruction including their social role.

Then a gradual change in Washington’s can be observed. For the time being the US have backed the opposition in its intransigent position regarding a negotiated settlement. But the prolongation of the conflict and rapid growth of Jihadism, their loved enemy, turned them increasingly anxious – both the power apparatus as well as public opinion. For the time being they have been repeatedly ruling out direct military involvement but tolerated the games of their regional allies which supported the different Islamist tendencies. A fraction of the administration pressed for the arming of parts of the opposition intending at the same time to sideline the Jihadis – an endevour which already failed in Libya and in other places. The former foreign secretary Clinton was promoting this line as well as some top bras like Petreaus. But this faction seems to have subsided. One should not forget that there has been also the other so far subordinated option on the table represented by the Geneva declaration between Washington and Moscow dated June 30, 2012. Obama, the elected king, eventually seems to tend more towards the doves.

Betraying the revolution?

Not only partisans of the official opposition, but also many leftists regard the attempts towards a compromise as a betrayal of the revolution. For example a „Revolutionary Left Current“ explains that a negotiated settlement was a “correction from above” in order “to save the interests of the bourgeoisie” and to reap the fruits of the revolution.

“The judgment on such initiatives is subject, from our point of view, to the criteria meeting the following conditions: to provide for the masses the ability to re-establish their fight and struggle to topple the dictatorial regime, that does not provide for the latter to prolong its time or survival, and in particular that allow the space for radical change from below in favour of the popular classes and to serve their direct and general interests.”

We can even agree to these overall criteria. But we do object the general assumption that negotiations offering a compromise are hurting the interest of the democratic popular movement.

There are not only the experiences of the revolutions in South America, Southern Africa and some Asian countries. Negotiations can serve as an instrument to broaden the consensus the revolutionary movement is wielding among the popular masses. Sometimes the most militaristic tendencies of the movement where those most prone to capitulate while those intending revolution not as a mere military coup or adventure but as strategic struggle for the heads of the majority would carry on also under the worst of conditions.

In Syria there are further indications why the revolution cannot follow a classical model of successive radicalisation of a popular movement climaxing in an armed struggle. Two massive obstacles or blocking this way: sectarianism and geo-politics.

Ad a) Under given circumstances the armed movement exacerbates sectarianism – a tiger the revolutionary movement is unable to ride or even to tame. Actually the danger to be swallowed by sectarianism appears to be acute. (In Iraq this happened to the resistance.)

Ad b) Russia, Iran and China fear the fall of Assad for obvious geo-political reasons. While we cannot share their neglect for democratic rights of the people, we do care about their opposition to American supremacy. The popular movements across the globe need the weakening of the mono-polar world. Any step towards multi-polarism is positive — though not enough. The de facto-affiliation of the opposition, even the democratic one, with the pro-Western bloc can only be reversed by attempting a negotiated settlement since it signals the readiness and willingness not to enter the US orbit and paves the way for a co-operation with Moscow & Co.

Those two aspects advice a line of de-escalation. This does in no way contradict (armed) self-defense. A political settlement, a compromise with the regime which provides some more freedom to continue the struggle, would be the best intermediate solution for the democratic revolution as the struggle cannot be won military under given political circumstances. Its first steps would be the release of political prisoners and a truce. Its result must be no less than a transitional government actually implying a very change of the characteristics of the regime. In this way the irrevocable demand of the withdrawal of Assad can be maintained but not as a pre-condition but as a result.

Many would deem such an agreement highly improbable and unrealistic, given the historic record of the regime – and maybe they are right. They say that too much blood has been spilled – and maybe they are right. But sometimes the biblical eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth does not wield the hoped-for political results and leads into an impasse. To renounce participating in this escalation spiral might be interpreted as weakness but could later turn out as political strength and courage. On one hand we believe that the situation is not so clear-cut on the international scale given American indeterminateness. On the other hand – and this is the prime aspect – even a failed round of negotiations might change the political relationship of forces in favour of the democratic forces especially within the communal minority groups. And it might convince Moscow to allow or even push for a shift within the regime.

If the Damascene bourgeoisie eventually endorses this position – all the better. “This bourgeois class became encouraged for the need for partial change of the dictatorial regime, partial and from above, restricted to political features, and not social ones.” Absolutely correct, but this has been the case also in Tunisia and Egypt representing nevertheless a giant step forward. The “bourgeoisie will try to maintain is class interest” as it has been doing in Tunisia and Egypt but such a change still means a tremendous gain for the popular movement.

Better one step backward than all-out sectarian civil war (even if supported by parts of the popular masses who embraced Jihadism – which means that the Jihadis also have to be addresses in a process of negotiations) leading to general destruction which might eradicate the momentum of the popular democratic revolution all together.

Eventually the proposal for negotiations is a means to establish the revolutionary democratic bloc as a majority across all confessions. By means of arms this is today not possible as violence is being read according to confessional patterns. Only by addressing the fears of the sectarian communities, by extending the political invitation to a negotiated settlement in the direction of a democratic transition, they can be won to the democratic revolution which thus might acquire hegemony.